Message in a bottle
On a cold and rainy February night the notorious two stripes appeared on my pregnancy test. I was devastated. It was so not the time to be pregnant. My husband and I had just moved to Barcelona from Russia, I hardly spoke any Spanish, we were living in a shared apartment, no stable income, and I had left a handicapped mother back home, for whom I felt great responsibility.Upon my visit to CAP I had it confirmed, but there was no further action, they didn’t even do as much as examine me, or schedule an ultrasound to make sure it was a proper pregnancy. My visit with the comadrona was scheduled in about another month’s time. What was I supposed to do in the meantime? I was confused, scared and quite desperate.
I browsed the internet for any info I could find in English and stumbled upon barcelonabirth. net. I wrote what felt like a SOS message to the creator of the site, Esther Jones. Next morning there was a reply from her agreeing to meet for coffee and chat. I am still short for words to explain what it meant to me. She told me what it was all about and what options I had in Barcelona. Esther also mentioned she was undergoing doula training and said she’d be available for me if I needed her for birth.
I felt so much better and more secure. Still I was terrified of the changes that would be taking place in my body and I was scared to death about labour, where I wouldn’t know what my body would do, would have no control in the hospital, the pain, the possible things that could go wrong, and that I didn’t even speak Spanish to be able to communicate properly through it all. When I was about 20 weeks gestation, Esther introduced me to Hypnobirthing and my husband and I did the weekend long course she taught. Hypnobirthing was a revolution. It’s so obvious, but I never knew the female body was so well designed and fit for reproduction.
We kept in touch with Esther regularly and she frequently visited me at home (yes, we finally found an apartment to rent on our own) and did more Hypnobirthing sessions, where we practiced breathing and different relaxation and visualization techniques. I also regulary listened to the Hypnobirthing exercises to which I fell asleep every night. I finally calmed down and became totally comfortable with my body at pregnancy and upcoming birth. I felt prepared and confident to face whatever would happen. It also helped to know Esther would be there for me no matter what. My husband, who previously had no clue about how it worked, got in tune and learned how he could help me during labour.
After much research I decided it was easier to learn Spanish and go through the public healthcare system for antenatal care and birth. I was automatically directed to La Maternintat and I felt comfortable with it. Pregnancy was progressing just fine, all tests and ultrasounds coming out perfect. It was going to be a girl. Later when I went to the local CAP for classes – there were a few couples who had private insurance and were opting for La Maternitat, because of its lower c-section rate.
Also I signed up for intensive Spanish classes – and was digging them as if my life depended on it. Besides everything else, I learned pretty much all the vocabulary related to pregnancy and labour. It felt good to have that level of independence and confidence. I went to all prenatal visits on my own and was just fine.
It was late August, we had just finished moving when I got the news my mother Ruzanna back in Russia had a stroke. I was already 8 months pregnant and couldn’t travel to be with her. I had planned to go see her before, but had lost my documents and by the time I recovered them, we were really pressed for time to find and move to an apartment, so my trip didn’t work out. My plan was to have the baby and then go to Moscow and stay with my mom and take care of her and the baby. I just knew that the proximity of new life would stimulate her recovery like nothing else.
But it didn’t happen. Ruzanna died the night of September 30. My family was afraid to tell me, for the effect it could have on me. Also I wouldn’t have been able to travel to the funeral anyway. So I found out a few days later. I was so devastated, I would break down crying anywhere and at any time. The crying provoked contractions and it felt like the world was coming to an end. I had nightmares of my mother, and had very hard time sleeping. It was all I could do to just keep going for the sake of the baby. I even went to a sophrologist who helped me get to sleep at last.
In the midst of all this horror, Esther kept me going, and a couple of weeks later told me she had become pregnant herself. She was only a few weeks along, but it was hard to contain the excitement. Of course, I predicted it would be a girl.
Then there was the Halloween weekend. I was 40.3 weeks gestation and went to the movies to see The Shining. My mucous plug had come out 3 days before after the 40 week tacto. It was anytime now. And it was at the movies that labour started. I felt I needed to go the bathroom every 10 minutes, and sitting no longer felt comfortable. I paced back and forth in the theatre lobby poking my head in to check on Jack Nicholson’s mad progression (his chasing after his son with an axe haunted me for hours during labour, it was such a stupid choice of film for late pregnancy).
When the movie was finished – around 11 pm, I told my husband I needed to lie down. We went back home and started timing the contractions. They were finally regular and were 4-5 minutes apart. We called Esther and soon she arrived. It was after midnight and I was getting more and more uncomfortable. I could no longer talk through one. Both the hospital and Esther had told me to stay home as long as possible, but it was getting too painful and I was afraid I would be too uncomfortable to travel if I delayed it any longer.
At the hospital they said I was dilated 4 cm and that they were admitting me. I asked if we could get a room all to ourselves, and luckily there was one available. It’s funny, but a year later I met the woman who had stayed in that room right before me – we’re friends now.
I had been to the birthing unit the week before, when we went for an emergency checkup, because I felt no movement of the baby, so the surroundings were familiar and so was the baby monitoring procedure, although now much more uncomfortable with the contractions.
I changed into a gown and went to the laboring room, frequently stopping during contractions. My husband was in the corridor waiting for me, but unfortunately they didn’t let Esther in. Also it turned out they didn’t do walking epidurals, contrary to the options that were offered in the birth plan they make you fill out. I opted for not having anything. I thought I’d wait for an hour to see at what pace I dilate naturally and then decide. It was around 2 a.m. and I was in pain. I was free to move around, and it felt like the most comfortable place to be was on the toilet, because I constantly felt like peeing. Then I could no longer sit and went on to pace the room – like a tiger in a cage, mad fast circles. I almost knocked down my husband when he got in the way.
Finally, I felt I could no longer stand the intensity of it and asked for an epidural. It was nearly 3 a.m. – the huge clock hanging on the wall was very convenient. The comadrona came in to check on me. It was only an hour since I got in the laboring room but I was 8 cm by then. She asked if I felt like pushing, and I finally realized what that weird feeling of discomfort was – the urge to push. She figured we didn’t need the epidural since I was so close. I couldn’t believe I really was but went with whatever she said, whatever was happening inside my body was too intense to think. Besides, I was terrified of the catheter they insert into your uretra for peeing, more so than of the epidural itself.
I climbed back on the chair and on my side grabbing tight the arm of the chair. Things were pretty foggy by then – it felt like I was in another world. My husband’s whisper to breathe very close to my ear was the only real thing at that time. And breathing with your stomach makes a huge huge difference during labour and pushing.
Judging by a sore throat I had for a few days after I must have been screaming very hard – it was that amazing animal kind of a scream that comes from your very core (some movies get it right). I think that’s how midwives tell one is at their last stage of labour. They told me to hold my screaming powers and direct them at pushing instead. Somewhere around that time they broke my waters, as they still hadn’t broken by then (a friend who birthed there recently said she had an option of not having her waters broken, and her baby was nearly born in his sack).
I pushed as hard as I could and even harder than that. There was a crowd of people at my feet now, and I judged we were very close. Also I saw a table with lots of shiny instruments down there. I had a feeling they were going to do an episiotomy to speed things up and I screamed several times at them not to cut me (I still wonder if they would have, if I hadn’t screamed at them).
Then all of a sudden I was told to stop. The head must have come out. A moment later there was this thing placed on my chest. It was live, warm, wet, with eyes open, moving, clean (I thought she’d be bloody and slimy), and it had the most intoxicating baby smell.
I was so shocked I asked them what it was and when they said it was a baby, I asked if it was mine. It was surreal.
I screamed at them once again to wait before cutting the umbilical cord (FYI – Noone bothers to read the birth plan they make you fill out and last I knew they cut it right away).
So the night of October 30 at 3:55, exactly a month after my mother Ruzanna breathed for the last time, my daughter Sofia Ruzanna took her very first breath on planet Earth. And then we realized it was the night the clocks were going backward. They opened the lid on the clock to fix the time. But in the records they wrote the “old” time – 4 a.m. I love having this as a reminder each year when the clocks change time in autumn. My life so completely changed at that moment.
After the birth
I tore, so they had to give me stiches, albeit internal ones. Also they gave me an IV with oxytocin to speed up the placenta birth. It came out soon, big and slimy – I felt it slipping out, unlike the baby. I saw it later on the table – it was huge, dark red and glistening in the light. I wish I was offered the option of keeping it (my friend has recently given birth at la Maternitat and they gave her the choice). They had to call the comadrona a few times as they were stitching me up and she’d stick her hand inside my uterus and manually removed the pieces of placenta that hadn’t come out. It was uncomfortable, but bearable. Then they were going to insert the hateful catheter to make me pee, and I asked them not to, and promised I’d pee as soon as I was upstairs in the room.
Now looking back I think if they’d just given me another half hour my body would have pushed the baby out just fine, and I wouldn’t have torn. And the placenta would have come out on it’s own just fine as well. The pain was also not quite so strong as it had been during the transition, when I gave up and asked for the epidural – you had little breaks in between the pushes.
I was to stay in the birthing room for an hour just to make sure all was ok. The baby was taken away only for a couple of minutes to measure and weigh, and then she was back with me – naked against my bare chest for the rest of the time. I just couldn’t believe she was there and couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was so sweet and cozy to be like that with her under a blanket. Carlos went out to check on Esther, who had been sitting all this time in the waiting area. He came back and said she was quite surprised we had her so quickly.
They wheeled me out to the room where we were to stay at around 6 a.m. I was hungry and thirsty – luckily Esther had brought along some food with her. She held the baby, while my husband was sorting paperwork somewhere – in fact she was the first person to ever hold my Sofia Ruzanna, even before my husband. I should have gotten to sleep, but was too excited. None of us could believe it was over so quickly and completely naturally. I had been preparing myself for 2 days of labour ending in C-section. My husband said it was like a tooth extraction.
A few days after we came home Esther brought her whole family to meet little Sofia Ruzanna and to check on us. And seven months later we went to hers to meet her beautiful little baby girl Carys.
I would have never in a million years had imagined how life changing the following 9 months would be when I first got pregnant. All the people I met along the way and the new experiences I’d have. Also it is amazing the creative power you get from having brought and nurtured a human being into this world. You finally realize your full physical potential as a woman and feel there is absolutely nothing you couldn’t do (provided you’re free of postpartum depression, of course).
And I certainly never imagined the little 2 paragraph message would make such a huge difference in my life. Esther has become such a dear dear friend. She is one of the few people who was there for me at the most difficult time of my life and I will remember that for as long as I live. I hope Sofia and Carys also become friends as they grow.
Tips: Here are some practicalities of La Maternitat and general things I wish I had known:
- You get your private birthing room with a bathroom, but it’s still a production line birth – there are about 10 women birthing at the same time, so the object is to deliver babies as quickly and safely as possible. They kind of made it clear that baby’s safety was a priority to them, and I wasn’t, when I told them the baby monitor felt uncomfortable. Yes, they encourage a natural birth, but I got the feeling that if they can speed it up a bit, they will.
- Keep your fingers crossed and ask for your own private room when you check in – it’s 70 euros a night, and you can’t book it in advance. It was great not having to share, and have my husband stay there the whole time.
- The baby stays with you the whole time (which in my case meant I hardly slept that whole time we were at the hospital). The food they serve is quite good and there is the magic button you can push every time you’re in trouble with anything. Your partner can get food at the canteen downstairs, which also has decent food.
- Do your research about birth and know what you want. I knew I’d rather tear naturally than be cut, I knew I wanted the umbilical cord to stop pulsating before being cut, and also I knew about not pushing beyond what I was capable of. I just trusted the midwife, who needed me to be over with it fast, and I shouldn’t have. That is one big thing I would change – just push at my own pace and within my means (your uterus is so strong it does the work anyway and it knows what it’s doing). And if you can, don’t lose control (your partner might be slow in realizing what’s happening, as they don’t quite announce what they are about to do) and stand your ground. Also they broke my waters at around 8 cm to speed things up, which at the time was no big deal at all, but I now wish they hadn’t. I was already progressing fast enough and completely naturally, was there really a need to intervene! If I’d known, I would have told them to leave me alone.
- If there is a possibility of you getting an epidural they won’t let you even drink water. I was so desperate, I had my husband wet his fingers and brush them against my lips. I had left my water bottle somewhere, otherwise I would have drunk when no one was there. Your body needs water. And when it was for certain I was going natural, they let me take a few sips – it made a world of difference and I felt like I could go on for quite a while longer.
- Know that if you opt for an epidural, you are going to be sitting on a sort of a wheelchair without any movement in your lower body and you’ll be peeing through a catheter. To me that was more horrifying than the labour pains, however, at the end I was prepared to even get that. Hold out as long as you can, it’s really nice that once the baby is out, you’re DONE, can eat, drink walk – anything!
- They do pinch the baby’s foot for the vitamin K administration (I thought it was no big deal, don’t think she even cried).
- Bring along your items of comfort – I loved having my breastfeeding pillow (long sausage) that I had slept with the whole time during pregnancy and also my blanket (it was the end of October and I would have been a bit cold with whatever sheets I had).
- If you can, go sit in the waiting/admittance area at some point of your pregnancy for as long as you can. Bring a book and a snack. You get to see women coming in ready to labour, you gage the time they have to wait before being admitted, you also see them being wheeled out after they gave birth (with the little bundle on their chest) – they all pass the waiting area on their way to the rooms. I had been there a week before I gave birth, it helped me get familiarized with the atmosphere and it didn’t seem so new and scary. Also the happy women with their newborn babies, their relatives rushing to see them is an amazing and tear jerking site – helps you visualize the happy outcome of your own birth when it’s all over.
- Do have your partner remember bring the camera no matter the chaos preceding your trip to the hospital. He needs to take still shots and if he can discreet little videos with a phone (I am not sure, but I think u have to have permission to videotape with a proper camera) of anything and everything during and after birth even if you just turn it on and record the sound. It’s the most unique time of your life and your brain is so foggy you might later feel like there is some memory gap, and it will help you put the pieces together. I’d die to have even 30 seconds of a video of myself during pushing or the baby being born, or anything, just to be able to perceive the intensity of it from outside. I only have a few pictures taken with my husband’s phone when we finally thought of it (he also had forgotten it in the waiting area where all our luggage was).
- Do your breastfeeding homework. Your milk arrives on the 3rd day after birth – the time when you are already home. And you need to know how to care for your engorged and leaking breasts, how to extract the extra milk if necessary, what to do if you have inverted nipples and baby can’t latch on them to feed. How to prevent and deal with cracked nipples.You need to know what is mastitis and how to avoid it (I ended up having it on the 8th day after labour). Have contacts for an experienced and hands on lactation consultant.
- You are given 10 days after baby is born to register the baby, otherwise he doesn’t exist as far paperwork is concerned. If you’re married, your husband can do it, but if not, you have to show up as well.
- And lastly have all the household stuff cared for – someone who you know would clean, shop and cook for you until you recover from labour – the first 2 weeks are crucial. Also someone who’d take the baby out of the house for a stroll so you could catch up a little on your sleep. Ideally it should be your partner, but sometimes they can’t cope with everything. I wish I had had my MIL there from the beginning, instead of unrealistic expectations of how romantic it would be with just the 3 of us. It depends on the baby, of course, but ours didn’t give us any breaks at all.
- And the very last thing I would like to add is this: I think that as long as you and your baby come out of the birth experience alive and healthy, or at least with no permanent damage – you’ve had a successful birth. Everything else is a bonus. Sometimes certain things just have to be done for safety of the baby or the mother, and no one should ever feel guilty or less of a woman because they didn’t have the ultimate natural birth or breastfeeding experience.
P.S. Little Sofia Ruzanna is growing and resembles my mother in many ways. She has recently started going to daycare and I finally can begin to claim back my life. I’ve tried writing up this story several times, but it took me 2 years to actually get the time to sit down, to concentrate and to gather my thoughts all at once. As much as I was prepared to deal with the birth, I was unprepared to deal with what happened after, the lactation, the sleep deprivation, the colics, the grieving over my mother, the responsibility for someone’s life, the mother instinct bordering insanity, the dark and long depression and the toll all of the above take on one’s marriage. But that is a different story altogether.